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Wednesday, January 19, 2022
The independent student publication of The Unversity at Buffalo, since 1950

Silencing the hate

The misusage of the R-word


I used the forbidden word only once. The moment the word escaped my mouth, I felt a cold awakening of the pain I just inflicted.

My sister bowed her head with disappointment. With just one word, I showed her that I had fallen to the peer pressures of society.

That word was “retarded.”

I never should have said it, especially as someone with an autistic brother.

My older brother is 27. He still cannot speak, read or write. In all his hospital papers and yearly checkup documentation, I check “yes” for mental disability because his mental capabilities never grew past the age of three.

This is an insult to him because he is pretty damn clever.

He knows he’s not allowed to have cookies or sweets, but that doesn’t stop him. He would salvage through the kitchen cabinets when he was alone, take the sweets and continue to his room. He would repeatedly take the tin, raise it and drop it. The first time this happened, I thought it was just his new habit.

I was bewildered to find a grinning boy with a mouth full of cookies.

It’s unfair to call him mentally retarded just because he cannot vocalize what he wants. He is mischievous and a big, giant baby, but it never crossed my mind to see him as dumb.

I’m aware that he is a special kind of older brother and that he is my responsibility to protect. But that time in middle school, I betrayed the unspoken bond between us.

I was 12 and the R-word was the king of insults. Just the bare utterance of the word would result in a burst of laughter.

My friends and I used the word that denotes an intellectual incapability and we abused it. We never presented the opportunity for people like my brother to reclaim the word because they have no means of doing so.

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That, in its bare nature, is the power of cowardice.

I never said the word again, but I often hear it used. Use of the R-word in everyday interactions is jarring to me. It is a word used as an insult like any other word – stupid, dumb, idiot. But the meaning of the R-word is so significantly different that it shouldn’t be said casually.

It wasn’t until I entered college that I felt the power dynamic of the word change.

A student in my English class who was fond of the R-word said it throughout class and snickered as if he had just made a great joke. As he was searching for laughs and validation each time, the class sat in silence.

What prompted the students in that English class to remain silent is something I still don’t know. It could be a number of reasons, but I realized we are adults who are held accountable for our choice of words. I began to ask my friends not to use it anymore. It’s not your word, I told them.

I’d like to think my brother would agree.

In some future, I imagine my brother will finally break out of his silence and tell people that he is no different from them. He’d be his own hero, running around the streets and wiping it clean of the tainted word.

Poof, gone.

The R-word is more than just a bullet; it is their silencer and we have no right to use it.

Wanly Chen is a staff writer and can be reached at



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